When I think of War poets I think of Siegfried Sasson, Wilfred Owen, or closer to home Francis Ledwidge, Thomas McDonagh and Pádraic Pearse. Notably these men all fought at the beginning of the 20th century.
Sadly, one hundred years later War certainly hasn't gone away, yet we hear little about War Poetry.
Perhaps it is the fact that poetry itself has become an even more marginalised artform in the age of instantaneous messaging and downloadable videos. Who knows? In any case, I was certainly very pleased to discover that War Poetry is alive an well in the 21st century. I tune in regularly via iPod to American radio stations (oh Janus faced technology, you destroy the old yet insist on keeping it alive). One favourite is the magnificent public radio station KCRW, based in Santa Monica, Southern California, and which specialises in new music and the arts. It was on "Bookworm", presented by the excellent and inimitable Michael Silverblatt, that I came across Brian Turner. (incidentally the show seems to give decent coverage to Irish Writers - Colm Toibín and Anne Enright were recently given a full length show each).
Turner was part of the 10th Mountain Division in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1999 and 2000. Later, in 2004 he was a team leader in the first Stryker brigade to be sent into the combat zone in Iraq, and was stationed for much of 2004 near Mosul. He had already aquired a Masters degree in writing and had written a substantial amount of material during his experiences in the Balkans. But it was his time in Iraq which really unleashed his talent. He wrote in secret, not wanting to tell his comrades in arms, because he said "it’s hard to be hard-nosed if you’re writing poetry" The quote from New Yorker 2005, the year when Turners "Here, Bullet" collection won the Beatrice Hawley Award.
Here are three poems from Here Bullet, the last being the title poem of the Collection.
AB Negative (The Surgeon’s Poem)
Thalia Fields lies under a grey ceiling of clouds,
just under the turbulence, with anesthetics
dripping from an IV into her arm,
and the flight surgeon says The shrapnel
cauterized as it traveled through her
here, breaking this rib as it entered,
burning a hole through the left lung
to finish in her back, and all of this
she doesn’t hear, except perhaps as music—
that faraway music of people’s voices
when they speak gently and with care,
a comfort to her on a stretcher
in a flying hospital en route to Landstuhl,
just under the rain at midnight, and Thalia
drifts in and out of consciousness
as a nurse dabs her lips with a moist towel,
her palm on Thalia’s forehead, her vitals
slipping some, as burned flesh gives way
to the heat of the blood, the tunnels within
opening to fill her, just enough blood
to cough up and drown in; Thalia
sees the shadows of people working
to save her, but she cannot feel their hands,
cannot hear them any longer,
and when she closes her eyes
the most beautiful colors rise in darkness,
tangerine washing into Russian blue,
with the droning engine humming on
in a dragonfly’s wings, island palms
painting the sky an impossible hue
with their thick brushes dripping green…
a way of dealing with the fact
that Thalia Fields is gone, long gone,
about as far from Mississippi
as she can get, ten thousand feet above Iraq
with a blanket draped over her body
and an exhausted surgeon in tears,
his bloodied hands on her chest, his head
sunk down, the nurse guiding him
to a nearby seat and holding him as he cries,
though no one hears it, because nothing can be heard
where pilots fly in blackout, the plane
like a shadow guiding the rain, here
in the droning engines of midnight.
The Baghdad Zoo
Is the world safer? No. It’s not safer in Iraq - Hans Blix
An Iraqi northern brown bear mauled a man
on a street corner, dragging him down an alley
as shocked onlookers shouted and threw stones.
Tanks rolled their heavy tracks
past the museum and up to the Ministry of Oil.
One gunner watched a lion chase down a horse.
Eaten down to their skeletons, the giraffes
looked prehistoric, unreal, their necks
too fragile, too graceful for the 21st Century.
Dalmatian pelicans and marbled teals
flew over, frightened by the rotorwash
of Blackhawk helicopters touching down.
One baboon escaped the city limits.
It was found wandering in the desert, confused
by the wind, the blowing sand of the barchan dunes.
If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.